Great conservation achievements often span several professional careers, so those who start them don’t always live to see their work come to fruition. Larry Houf is lucky in that respect. He not only is seeing the fruits of his labor; they have become a family legacy.
In the early 1980s, Houf took over management of Peck Ranch Conservation Area (CA), 23,000 acres of rugged, forested land in the heart of Missouri’s Ozark Plateau. His first challenge was figuring out what the land wanted to be.
The idea of using “ecological land types” to guide wildlife management is taken for granted today, but back then it was revolutionary. Before Houf could begin his task, he had to peer back through the mists of history. Peck Ranch CA’s history included more than a century of European settlement, iron smelting and cut-and-run logging. That history had obscured much of the evidence of the plants and animals that once inhabited the area. Fortunately, Houf had a guide book of sorts--a collection of maps of ecological land types painstakingly assembled by another MDC worker, Tim Nigh.
The maps revealed a landscape vastly different from what confronted Houf. Where he found cedar thickets, Nigh’s maps showed sun-baked glades with wildflowers and prairie grasses. On moister hillsides Nigh’s maps showed woodlands with a mix of trees and grasses. Ridges were clothed in grassy savannas, with scattered trees. Towering stands of shortleaf pine-–almost entirely absent in Houf’s day--covered large areas of Nigh’s maps.
Houf knew why the original vegetation had disappeared. The mystery was why it had not grown back after the homesteaders, miners and loggers left. He found his answer in earlier history--all the way back to the Paleo-Indian Period 12,000 years ago, when the area’s original inhabitants had set fires to manipulate the landscape to their advantage.
Once he realized that fire had been an important influence on Ozarks ecology for thousands of years, it was obvious to Houf that he needed to bring fire back. He became an advocate of “prescribed burning,” done under controlled conditions with clear management objectives rooted in an understanding of fire’s ecological effects. Acceptance wasn’t immediate, but by the time he retired in 2001, fire crews were burning as much as 1,000 acres at a time on Peck Ranch.
That might have been the end of the Houf family’s conservation saga. However, Houf’s passion for conservation had kindled the same spark in both his children. His daughter, Trana Madsen, today works as a naturalist at Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson City. His son, Ryan, has been the wildlife biologist responsible for Peck Ranch CA since 2008.
But the legacy goes deeper still. Before Ryan took over management at Peck Ranch, his wife, Kim, had the job from 2005 through 2007. Considering his lifelong exposure to the history and principles of wildlife management at Peck Ranch, it’s hard to imagine someone with a better resume for the job.
“Dad’s work laid the foundation for today’s management,” said Ryan. “He promoted making land management decisions based on ecological land types and striving to return the landscape to those natural plant and animal communities. He always told me it was easier to go with the natural flow that Mother Nature had intended than to swim upstream.”
Today, ideas that once were revolutionary are standard operating procedures. The first prescribed burn Ryan supervised covered nearly 4,000 acres on Stegall Mountain Natural Area.
“The match and the ax have become common tools in managing woodland communities,” said Ryan. “A lot of credit goes to the many others who have worked on Peck Ranch over the years.”
Their legacy has aided the resurgence of plants that were common 200 years ago. These include shortleaf pine (Missouri’s only native pine species), prairie grasses and wildflowers. Another glade-dweller, the extravagantly colorful collared lizard or “mountain boomer,” now thrives at Peck Ranch.
White-tailed deer and wild turkeys hung on at Peck Ranch through decades of destructive land use. Elk, also once common in the area, were less fortunate. By the mid-1800s unregulated hunting had eradicated them. Over the following century, fire became a four-letter word, and much of the Ozarks, including Peck Ranch’s historic glades, savannas and open woodlands, morphed into a closed canopy of oak-hickory forest. Not only were the elk gone; so was the open, grassy habitat that once supported elk. All that began to change with the dawn of the Houf Dynasty.
“Dad didn’t set out to bring elk back to Peck Ranch,” said Ryan. “He just wanted the area to be what it naturally should be. The closer we come to achieving that goal, the more we have habitat suitable for elk again.”
The management philosophy pioneered by Larry and carried forward by his family set the stage for the Missouri Conservation Commission’s decision last October to reintroduce elk to a limited area in and around Peck Ranch. Current maps of habitat types on the area show increasing acreage of green browse plantings, glades, savannas and other grassy habitat that elk favor. Ongoing management work ensures continued increases in elk habitat.
Deer and turkey have thrived under the same management that favors elk and collared lizards, as evidenced by the area’s popularity among hunters. That popularity is likely to grow and expand to include much more wildlife watching once elk are established at Peck Ranch.